December 11, 2007
by Charles Bierbauer
Oprah Winfrey stepped out of her pew Sunday—out of her comfort zone–and into Williams-Brice Stadium. Oprah uncomfortable in front of a crowd? Hard to imagine.
“This is the first time I’m stepping out of my pew because I’ve been inspired,” the doyen of television talk show hosts told the sun-baked crowd that had come to see her–many just from their own church pews–and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. “In the past, I’ve been disappointed by politicians.” Pointedly, she said she rarely has politicians on her show, because “I only have an hour.”
Oprah spoke for 18 minutes on Obama’s behalf, warming up the crowd for the candidate’s nearly 40-minute expanded stump speech. Michelle Obama took four minutes to introduce Oprah. It all wrapped up in a neat TV hour.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that. The campaign event, once announced, quickly outgrew the University of South Carolina’s 18,000-seat Colonial Center and was shifted to the 80,000-seat football stadium. People came from all over South Carolina and neighboring states.
Obama called it “the biggest crowd in the campaign. Period. Of any candidate.”
It probably was. Campaign aides said there were 29,000 on hand, filling perhaps a third of the stadium. That defies an old political maxim that says a small room filled looks better than a large venue two-thirds empty. But that wasn’t the point for the Obama campaign’s Iowa-South Carolina-New Hampshire Oprah road show.
“What’s inspiring is not just the size of the crowd, but the makeup of the crowd,” Obama said. It was young and old, white and black (probably 75 percent African-American), and made up of “Democrats, independents and, yes, even some Republicans.”
Political crowds typically have three components: the committed who are there to reinforce their beliefs, the uncertain who are looking for a candidate and the merely curious who may or may not make up their minds by election day. Sunday’s gathering added the admittedly star-struck.
An undecided voter from Walterboro said Oprah’s presence “somewhat” influenced his decision to come because “people follow her.”
Oprah did not make the same assumption, or at least did not admit it. “I know the difference between a book club and this seminal moment,” she said, referring to her ability to catapult a book to best-seller status with her endorsement.
I don’t endorse candidates here. But as an educator, communicator and former foreign correspondent, I can applaud the concerns Oprah raises as her own and ours.
Education: “We shake our heads because we can’t believe the quality of our schools.”
Communication: “We have a global knowledge economy.”
Foreign policy: “Our estrangement from the rest of the world–it does matter what the rest of the world thinks of us.”
These are questions for any candidate to address, not just Obama. He may not have the answers. But if it takes Oprah to get us out of our comfortable pews on those issues, as she has gotten her viewers to engage on many other matters, then perhaps it’s good that she was stirred and inspired.
Oprah’s endorsement of Obama is still unquantified. But she certainly commandeered one weekend in December for him, from wintry Iowa and New Hampshire to balmy South Carolina. Of all the candidates running for president, only Hillary Clinton can bring along a celebrity to match Oprah’s popularity. Bill Clinton. Maybe.
We’re getting close to the measurements that count. Watch the political polls over the next week to see if there’s an Oprah effect. Watch the early primaries, now just a month away, with Obama probably needing to win in Iowa and here in South Carolina to stop Hillary. Watch Oprah’s ratings on the outside chance there’s a backlash. She may have put more at risk than anyone by stepping off her studio set and out of her pew.
Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.
December 11, 2007
December 1, 2007
by Charles Bierbauer
I’ve booked a ticket for Oprah’s appearance in Columbia this coming Sunday. I understand Barack Obama will be there, too. I’ve seen and spoken with Senator Obama before, but this is different.
Oprah Winfrey is more than a phenomenon, having been around long enough to now be considered an institution and to have entered the ranks of celebrity where only a single name is required for instant recognition. Elvis. Tiger. Oprah.
I don’t watch her television show. I don’t read her magazine. I don’t buy the books she recommends. I did see her in the movie “The Color Purple.”
Yet there is something that compels me to want to be there when Oprah comes to town. It is, of course, the politics of it all. Oprah endorsing Obama for president raised an eyebrow. Oprah campaigning for Obama, as she plans to in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, pings the needle.
I’m not easily moved. I’ve covered five presidential campaigns and seen lots of celebrities. Ronald Reagan could trot out Charlton Heston and Fess Parker. (That’s Moses and Davy Crockett, in case anyone under 50 is puzzled.) The senior George Bush was partial to country stars—Loretta Lynn and the Oak Ridge Boys. Half of Hollywood seemed to be on location at the Clinton White House—Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Crystal…I could go on.
I cannot imagine even a handful of Americans allowing that they voted for Clinton because Barbra Streisand did. Or George Bush because they were fans of the Oak Ridge Boys. Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan? Maybe, but only because Heston fronted for the National Rifle Association and the word of Heston/Moses was good enough for them.
So the overarching question is does Oprah bring Obama more than attention and, presumably, campaign contributions? Do these appearances bring the Oprah vote?
And how big is that? It’s one thing to buy a $20 book because Oprah recommends it, but what’s her sway on a vote?
Those questions must make Hillary Clinton wince. Clinton and Obama are battling for two significant Democratic constituencies—women and African-Americans—and one dynamic sub-category—African-American women. Woe to any candidate who takes any of them for granted.
It’s a wonderful conundrum for the voter to have. Obama is the first African-American candidate to have a credible chance of winning his party’s nomination and being elected. Clinton is the first woman candidate to have a credible chance of winning her party’s nomination and being elected. Hmmm. Vote for Obama because he’s black. Vote for Clinton because she’s a woman.
I’m not going to even begin to parse the internal conversation going on in the African-American woman voter’s mind. I can’t. She might be leaning toward Bill Richardson, for all I know. But it is more than intriguing, and it could swing the balance in the volatile primaries.
Politics is often about sub-texts. Race and gender are only two. Religion and geography are two others. Age and experience. Endorsements, though they are much sought, are typically very low in the consideration of voters. Candidates are often happy to win the endorsement of some prominent figure simply so their opponents won’t get it.
Oprah’s appeal is so broad and her word is so persuasive among women of all races—white, stay-at-home moms are her core audience. She had not ventured into the political arena before on behalf of a candidate. This is well beyond Fred Thompson announcing his candidacy on Jay Leno’s show. Or Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio Hall’s. Or Al Gore smashing ash trays on Letterman.
Hillary Clinton also has substantial support among African-Americans, thanks in good measure to her husband Bill, a mega-celebrity among black Democrats. Where Clinton is polarizing—people ove her or hate her—Oprah is, well, Oprah.
If the equation is Hillary + Bill = Obama + Oprah, it may be a wash. What we don’t know, yet, is the value of the “O” factor.
Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.
He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.